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Athlon Editors Discuss 5 Burning College Hoops Questions.
1. Which conference tournament outside of the Big Six leagues are you most looking forward to?
Mitch Light: I can’t wait for the West Coast Conference Tournament, primarily because I want to see Round 3 of Saint Mary’s vs. Gonzaga. These two teams won on each other’s home floors and ended the regular season tied atop the league standings with 11–3 records. Saint Mary’s looked like an NCAA Tournament lock a few weeks ago but has played its way back to the bubble. Gonzaga, on the other hand, has won seven straight games and now appears to be in decent shape for an at-large bid. The loser of this game — assuming these two teams meet in the finals — will be sweating on Selection Sunday.
Braden Gall: The Colonial Athletic Association. George Mason and Old Dominion have all but locked up at-large bids, so four other talented — and motivated — teams could make a push for the automatic bid. VCU, Drexel, Hofstra and James Madison all could win the conference’s automatic bid. Honorable Mention: Atlantic-10. Keep an eye on Dayton.
Nathan Rush: The Mountain West Conference Tournament will feature two top-10 teams in BYU and San Diego State as well as a UNLV team that also received top 25 votes. Even though Jimmer Fredette’s Cougars swept Kawhi Leonard’s Aztecs (for SDSU’s only two losses this season), I still want to see a third round with the conference tourney title belt on the line.
2. Who is your Big Ten Player of the Year: JaJuan Johnson or Jared Sullinger?
Mitch: JaJuan Johnson has been terrific, but Sullinger has been a dominant force on the best team in the league. The freshman from Columbus, Ohio, is averaging 17.4 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting an impressive 55.8 percent from the field. Sullinger is also shooting a respectable 71.5 percent from the line, and he leads the league with 6.9 free throw attempts per game. Johnson has made this a tough decision in recent weeks, but I’ll stick with Sullinger.
Braden: There are plenty of other worthy names (namely in Madison, Wisc.), but between those two, Sullinger is the easy pick. His team is the likely champion and he is the better player — but not by much. Sullinger might get my vote for Player of the Year nationally as well.
Nathan: I respect everything that Purdue’s JaJuan Johnson has done this season, but Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger is a no-brainer for Big Ten Player of the Year. The 6’9”, 280-pound freshman is averaging 17.4 points and 9.8 boards, while owning the paint on both ends of the floor. “Big Sully” is the best player on arguably the best team in the country. A case could be made for Sullinger as National Player of the Year; he’s definitely the BMOC in the Big Ten.
3. Which team outside of the current top 10 can make a run to the Final Four?
Mitch: I’ll go with North Carolina. The Tar Heels have played very well over the last six weeks — they’ve won 10 of their last 11 games — and have regained a bit of the swagger lost during last season’s struggles. This is not a perfect team — they don’t shoot it great from the outside and they lack depth at the point — but the Heels have some really nice pieces. Tyler Zeller is an underrated post player; John Henson is ferocious on the boards; and freshman Harrison Barnes has been a consistent scorer in ACC games.
Braden: Normally the things I look for most when picking the bracket busters are senior guard play, consistent rebounding, offensive efficiency and half-court defense. Vanderbilt does not hit all of those areas, but comes close. The Dores play sound defense, rebound well and can shoot from the outside. I love the pieces to this puzzle. They have a true deep threat (John Jenkins), an imposing big man (Festus Ezeli), an athletic wing that is impossible to match-up with (Jeff Taylor) and an upperclassman handling the point (Brad Tinsley).
Nathan: Vanderbilt has a lot to like. The Commodores have three legit NBA prospects in sharpshooter John Jenkins, who is averaging 19.5 points on 88.9 percent from the charity stripe and has made 84 3-pointers at a 41.0 percent clip; athletic wingman and lockdown defender Jeff Taylor (14.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg); and 6’11” center Festus Ezeli (12.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 2.6 bpg). Also, of VU’s seven losses, three came on the road in overtime (at Mizzou, at South Carolina and at Florida) and two came in meltdowns against in-state rival Tennessee. This Vandy club is a few plays away from being viewed in an entirely different light. I’ll roll the dice on VU (since my early season long-shot pick of Texas doesn’t qualify as a “long-shot” anymore).
4. Does BYU deserve a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament?
Mitch: The Cougars should no doubt be in the mix. Right now, I would put Ohio State, Pittsburgh and Kansas ahead of the Cougars on the S-Curve. The final No. 1 spot is a tough call, but I would put BYU ahead of Duke and Texas at this point. Texas would have been my fourth No. 1 seed on Monday, but that changed with the Horns’ loss at home to Kansas State. If Duke beats North Carolina on Saturday night and beats the Heels again in the ACC Tournament finals, the Devils would have to be in position for a No. 1 seed.
Braden: I do not think that BYU is one of the best four teams in the nation. But that could work out in its favor. A closer-to-home 2-seed would be a better draw than a 3,000-mile trip as a 1-seed.
Nathan: BYU does not deserve a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Cougars have only two losses — against UCLA (86–79) at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim and at the Pit in New Mexico (86–77). But Jimmer Fredette and Co. do not have enough quality wins to justify a No. 1 seed. BYU has knocked off San Diego State twice, Arizona, Utah State, UNLV and Saint Mary’s. That doesn’t stack up with the resumes of the heavyweights from the Big Six power conferences. However, the Jimmer Nation should be rewarded with the top No. 2 seed — including a cushy low-mileage travel schedule and a chalk match-up with the weakest No. 1 seed in the Tourney.
5. Who is your National Coach of the Year?
Mitch: It’s a tough call. I will go with Notre Dame’s Mike Brey. The Fighting Irish are still in the hunt for the Big East title in the final week of the season — the year after losing Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson to graduation. Brey has a veteran group, but no one anticipated that Notre Dame would be this good and this consistent.
Braden: I want to say Steve Lavin at St. John’s, but I think his success this season is based largely on a single tube of magic hair gel (and lots of seniors). So I will go with Mark Turgeon of Texas A&M. He lost his top three scorers and his top rebounder from a year ago, and he was picked eighth in the Big 12 the preseason. Heading into the final week, the Aggies are 9–5 in the league and are in good shape to earn a first-round bye in the Big 12 Tournament.
Nathan: St. John’s has gone from a 17–16 (6–12 Big East) NIT team to a nationally ranked 19–9 (11–5 Big East) squad headed for the NCAA tourney thanks to first-year coach Steve Lavin — who is wearing Nike Air Force One sneakers to the Big Dance rather than the Gordon Gekko-inspired wannabe Pat Riley look he was famous for back at UCLA. With wins over Duke, Pittsburgh, Villanova, Georgetown, Notre Dame and Connecticut, Lavin has done more than any coach in the country this season.